Description

On 2 March 1949 Terence Rattigan was in Liverpool for the tour of his new play Adventure Story, when he received a note informing him of the death of his former boyfriend, Kenneth Morgan. Though Rattigan was devastated by the news, later that day he conceived the idea for a play inspired by Morgan’s suicide which eventually became The Deep Blue Sea.

This is a newspaper report of the coroner’s inquest into the death of Kenneth Morgan – real name Kenneth Ball – who gassed himself in a Marylebone boarding house where he had been living with his new boyfriend, Alec Ross.

How does Kenneth Morgan’s death compare with the plot of The Deep Blue Sea?

Morgan’s body was discovered in front of the gas fire in his room after the alarm was raised by another tenant of the boarding house, just like the discovery of Hester Collyer’s suicide attempt in the opening scene of The Deep Blue Sea. At the inquest, one of Morgan’s neighbours testified that he had found a suicide note; in the play the drama of the first act hangs on the whereabouts of this letter as it passes from Mr Welch to Hester to Freddie.

Aside from the details of the discovery of the body, the obvious similarity is in the nature of Morgan and Ross’s relationship. Shortly before Morgan’s suicide, Ross had explained to a mutual friend: ‘Kenneth expects too much of me, and I can’t return it. I don’t care for him like that. I’m not really queer at all’.[1] In The Deep Blue Sea, the central relationship between Hester and her lover Freddie Page is similarly imbalanced with Freddie unable to match Hester’s depth of feeling.

Concealing homosexuality

In 1949 homosexual activity between men was illegal. Alec Ross concealed the true nature of his relationship with Kenneth Morgan when giving evidence to the coroner, though this newspaper report drops a number of hints: the mention of the connecting door between their rooms, the headline suggesting that Morgan killed himself after a ‘tiff’ – a word normally associated with lovers.

Terence Rattigan was always very careful to conceal his sexuality in public by keeping up the pretence of being a heterosexual bachelor. Rattigan’s biographer Michael Darlow reports that ‘In the days immediately following the suicide Rattigan feared that there would be a scandal in which he would be implicated’.[2] He may even have read this report as he waited to see whether the national newspapers would pick up the story, but the days passed and the press failed to make the link between the famous playwright and Morgan’s suicide.

Suicide and a stiff upper lip

The suicide rate in England and Wales increased in the years following the Second World War with female suicides reaching a peak in the early 1960s (male suicides had reached a peak during the Great Depression in 1934). Gas poisoning was the preferred method for men committing suicide in the 1930s and 1940s, and it also became the preferred method for women in the 1950s and 1960s.[3]

This edition of the St Marylebone and Paddington Record contains three reports of suicide. On page two, the death of a woman who jumped off the roof of her house is reported with typical British understatement: ‘there were several small things on her mind…’ This world of social reserve and emotional restraint is immediately recognisable in The Deep Blue Sea and other Rattigan plays, where the characters’ real feelings generally lie beneath the surface.

[1] Quoted in Michael Darlow, Terence Rattigan: The Man and his Work (London: Quartet Books, 2000), p. 239.

[2] Darlow, Terence Rattigan, p. 241.

[3] http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2010/06/02/ije.dyq094.full. [Accessed 6 December 2016].

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